Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Challenge: My Earliest Memory

Some context for anyone coming in late: the topic is from the Weekly Blogging Challenge over at Long and Short Reviews. They have a new prompt each week (see the graphic at the first link) and on Wednesdays you can drop by their homepage to find the post where everybody puts links to their responses. You can even add your own if you like.

This week's challenge is My Earliest Memory.

Memories are strange things; they're more than shadows, less than realities. They're ghosts, and like ghosts they're unstable and prone to fading if ignored. Without something to anchor them, they deform and dissipate and sometimes disappear entirely.

There's a whole field of research related to how memory works, how memories are created (and recreated), and how they alter and are altered over time. Memories are untrustworthy, albeit with certain caveats; they may be more or less so for different people, and/or at different stages of life, and/or in regard to certain kinds of events and how they were processed afterwards, and/or because of certain kinds of trauma, mental illness, substance use/abuse, and processing issues. I'm fascinated by it, but I've barely scratched the surface of the available research on the topic.

My earliest memory isn't a memory. Not really; not anymore. It's a memory of a memory, or possibly further removed than that. There's nothing particularly special about it; it's just a memory of me walking past the corner of a couch in a particular place in a particular house. It's noteworthy only because when I was very young, maybe five or six years old, my father asked me this same question: what was the earliest thing I could remember? And that funny little scene -- was someone saying something to me at the time? I'm no longer certain -- was what came to me clearly as the farthest back my mind could reach. I remember being a five-or-six-year-old remembering a moment from when I was perhaps three.

You shouldn't trust any of this, by the way. I don't. Though the timing does match up with the period of time when we lived in that particular house, and the layout that I recall of the place. Also, some of the details that I remember about that house were later confirmed by my parents. Still... I clearly remember that as my earliest memory, and I remember recalling it clearly when I was younger. Nowadays, I couldn't tell you anything about the couch except that the armrest was about the level of my shoulder; I couldn't tell you much about the space it was in, except that it had a glass door to the back yard. And I may be conflating that with another piece of that house; memories are malleable, too.

So let me give you another memory of that house, from later on, because I'm more comfortable about -- and confident in -- this one. I remember the incident more clearly, partly because my father has told the story also (and in so doing, reinforced my own impressions; did I mention that ghosts need anchors?) and partly because, well, you'll see...

There was a tree in the back yard of that house. How tall, I'm not sure; tall by the nebulous standards of a small child, and in any case tall enough to have a branch that came out at a near-horizontal a good ways above the ground. My father hung a rope swing from the branch, and of course I swung in the swing. Then, one afternoon, I found myself looking at the ropes and decided to climb up them, so of course I did. At the top was the limb, so I climbed up onto that and stretched myself out along it.

My father came out into the yard some time later, saw me up there, and asked me if I knew how to get back down. He was very calm about it, but of course it was an alarmingly good question -- which I think is why this memory is still so clear to me. (When he tells the story, he explains about the nearly-superhuman effort he made to keep his voice calm and not frighten me, and the way he was moving forward to be under me in case I fell. I was aware of none of that.) Anyway, I thought about it for a moment and decided that in fact I did know how to get back down: it was the same way I'd come up, only backwards. So I eased myself off the limb, got my legs around the rope, and shimmied right back down.

...If you met me later in life, that story would probably not surprise you at all. And I think that's another part of why it's still a fairly clear memory: it had some drama to it, so naturally it got retold considerably more often than the one where I was a small child walking around the corner of the couch. In the process, it got reinforced, even rebuilt. My father remembers it too, and his memories of it are consistent with mine.

But you still shouldn't trust it.

Memories are funny like that.


  1. First: I can't imagine the panic your father felt!! Good for him for staying calm.

    Second: when my father was in the last stages of cancer, he talked to me about going to a particular place. It was where one of his sisters lived and he kept talking about when he'd taken me there. I had ZERO memory of this and told him so. He was emphatic about it, but I attributed it to massive doses of pain meds he was on.

    Later, after he was gone, I was going through pictures and found one of me and him standing by the water in the place he'd mentioned. I was older--maybe 8 or 9--so I'm not sure why I have no memory of it, but clearly we were there. I'll feel guilty forever for arguing with him just days before he passed.

    Memories are strange things.

    1. Yes. I think I absorbed a lot of early lessons about not panicking from him, and to this day I do my panicking after the fact.

      I'm sorry you argued with your dad, though.

  2. Wonderful memory, I raised a boy and know how they get into all kinds of trouble. All praise to your father for not spooking you into a fall.

    1. I have the distinct impression that he knew what to do from experience; he'd done a lot of climbing around himself.

  3. What wonderful memories. Thanks for sharing them, even if you don't trust them. I have some that I remember, but I wonder if it's because I saw a photograph of the time and it jogged my memory. You know?

  4. Thanks for stopping by earlier. I remember my daughter had climbed up in a tree (and was higher than our house!). It was the first time I really remembered being afraid for her. I loved your take on memories as ghosts. A wonderful way of looking at them.

    1. Yeah, having kids is occasionally just terrifying... Thanks!

  5. My dad liked to tell the story of how he found me lying down with a calf at Grandad's farm and had to approach me very carefully to avoid annoying the mother cow. The things the kids do.


Feel free to leave comments; it lets me know that people are actually reading my blog. Interesting tangents and topic drift just add flavor. Linking to your own stuff is fine, as long as it's at least loosely relevant. Be civil, and have fun!